The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Summer is heating up in the Centennial State, and although you might feel like you’re melting thanks to all this newfound humidity, the snowcapped peaks along our rippled skyline should clue you into some good news: Water sports are shaping up to be extra fun this this year.
Colorado houses eight different river basins across the state. Within each one, headwaters for major rivers that supply water for agriculture, recreation, and locals spill across the Centennial State (the big ones: the Arkansas, Colorado, and Green). The high winter snowpack (the state saw 37 percent more water in their frozen peaks this year than last year) that has already melted has fed these basins, leading to more water stored in every single Colorado reservoir in May than last year, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. And there’s more where that came from.
Give One Year of 5280 for just $16.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) tracks the snow and the amount of water held within it with SNOTEL—and no, that’s not the name of a fancy ski resort. SNOTEL stands for Snowpack Telemetry, which are remote backcountry weather stations. At these sites (there are 157 across the state, all between 7,000 and 12,000 feet of elevation), NRCS measures the snow and transmits the data wirelessly back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture HQ. Only the highest patches of alpine snow (and their excess water, if it melts) go undocumented.
This year’s snowpack has been mostly phenomenal, thanks to an active weather pattern across the state the entire winter season. “Everywhere you look—except for the Arkansas [and South Platte] basins—had a great snowpack year,” says Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist.
Of the eight basins in Colorado, six recorded above-average snowpacks. That half-dozen ended the year with 112 to 175 percent of normal snow water equivalent, or SWE, which is a measure of how much moisture is held in the frozen snow. In the Colorado Headwaters Basin, the snowpack will eventually melt down to more than 21 inches of water. (The top performer: the Dolores/San Juan/San Miguel/Animas basin, also known as the Southwest Basin, which gathered a surplus of 13.5 inches of SWE.)
Two of the basins, the South Platte and Arkansas, recorded slight SWE deficits of one to two inches of liquid, which isn’t too alarming: Each ended the season within 85 to 90 percent of normal.
As the water in Colorado’s alpine zones continues to phase from solid to liquid, expect high water flows and more intense rapids in our rivers and streams. Fishing and paddling sports have been superb, and reservoirs are higher than usual—great for boating.
“But what we don’t want to see is very hot and dry conditions move in too quickly,” Bolinger adds, “because if the snow melts too quickly, then we open the possibility of an active fire season. But a slow and steady melt should delay that.”
The good news? It looks like we’re getting just that. Thanks to light June snowfall in the mountains, coupled with our recent spate of gloomy weather, the melt should prolong well into July. It’s proposing to be a wet-and-wild summer.